It’s reserve team football that’s broken,fix that
There is only one topic on the nation’s lips this week: Greg Dyke’s controversial proposal to create a new League Three has sent negativity into overdrive. I heard Brendan Rodgers backing the scheme on Friday morning, saying that the players produced from some £300m of investment into coaching in academies need somewhere to develop their skills beyond youth and U21 football and into a man’s world.
I totally disagree with the proposals but I completely agree with that sentiment. The thing is, the best lads from those academies already have somewhere to go. The elite performers tend to find their way straight into first team structures. Ross Barkley is a case in point. Jack Wilshere too. Lately, James Wilson is on his way through at Manchester United.
Then there are the lads good enough for lower League football; out they go on loan to League clubs to develop their skills in a competitive environment. Jack Grealish went to Notts County from Villa. Conor Coady went to Sheffield United from Liverpool. Sam Byrne went to Carlisle from Man Utd.
Spurs sent a small group off lads to Swindon. That is an evolved concept based on the loan system.
So the structure of our game in this country, where we can boast the best league in the world, already has a means by which players can be developed beyond U21 football.
I was a beneficiary of the old Football Combination Reserve League. If you weren’t in the first team at QPR, you played in the reserves. No prima donnas. The Football Combination was a tough, competitive league in which young players learned with great players and against great players. I got to play with the likes of John Gregory and Terry Fenwick, England internationals, against the likes of Tony Adams and David O’Leary. It was hard. It was real. It was developmental. Reserve football is where ‘B’ team football fits in. That is where the gap is. A proper, competitive reserve league works. If clubs make their players play in it, if prize money is created, I guess ‘B football’ might attract crowds and TV too.
There are ways of developing talent. Parachuting a load of ‘B’ teams into a third league is not the answer. Disrupting the order of our national game is not the solution.
I am the last person in this world to deny change. I believe ‘he that will not change will wither and die’. But I also believe in equitability.
There are many club owners, all the way down in the very minor leagues, who have invested their thousands to climb the pyramid. There are Ryman teams dreaming of the Conference. There are Conference teams dreaming of the League. With every owner there are tens, hundreds, thousands of fans, players, board members, club stalwarts. They have dreams too. They have given to their clubs in time, effort, ideas, money, sweat, blood.
While Brendan puts the case for the giants to develop their players, let me put the case for the many more passionate people scattered throughout the game who are busy trying to get to the same place as the academy lads.
Nobody has the right to diminish their opportunity. Nobody has the right to parachute a load of ‘B’ teams in between the pyramid and its promised land.
The fact is that there are plenty of developmental routes that can be created without hurting the structure beneath the Premier League.
I have taken Todd Kane on loan from Chelsea. I took Luke Freeman on loan from Arsenal. I loaned Chuks Aneke from Arsenal. I loaned Michael Doughty and Bruno Andrade from QPR. I took Lee Barnard from Spurs. I took Conor Henderson from Hull City. I loaned Curtis Obeng from Swansea City. I hope those lads will say their loan taught them a lot.
I have also helped Steve Morison on his way to the Premier League. George Boyd and Simeon Jackson likewise. And Andy Drury, Lawrie Wilson and Michael Bostwick on their way to the Championship.
I feel I know what I am talking about. It is good for the Premier League that lads can go on loan and return with added skills, as David Beckham did. It is great for clubs like Preston that they get to share in the legend of David Beckham. That is part of the magic of our game. It is equally great that Morro can progress from Conference South to full international; that is the magic of the pyramid.
It is about everybody. Not just about the big boys. Not just about the power brokers.
We all want the game to become better and our national team to become stronger.We all want the best talent to have the best chance.
But we don’t want Stevenage to be playing Manchester City B team in a League Two game in an empty away stadium with half the fanbase there to view talent that might play in the first team at the Etihad one day. That isn’t real football.
We don’t want League
One to be populated at the top by Man Utd B, Man City B, Arsenal B, Tottenham B, Everton B, Liverpool B...while in mid-table are the clubs that will ‘go up automatically’ and just below halfway are the clubs that will contest play-offs. The beauty of our game is that promoted clubs have a chance created by winning momentum. Not a mediocre confidence from finishing 15th but winning meaningless playoffs.
The lower leagues are not broken so do not fix them. Premier League reserve football is broken so do fix it.
Modernising loan frameworks so lower league clubs can work as partners to bigger clubs is fine too. That may well encourage more investment into smaller clubs. But those arrangements must stop short of smaller clubs giving up their identity.
If Fulham had a partnership with Brentford that extended five years, they would have their own players playing on mass against them next season. That cannot be right. So we need to tread carefully. Loan partnerships must be transparent. And limited. Pick a partner but don’t dictate who manages that team and who that manager has to play.
When Rangers and Celtic were considered for introduction into the Premier League there was a fairly quick recognition that we could not just gift status to some, however big they were, while the pyramid clubs had fought since our football began to earn their places.
I am no dinosaur. And I applaud Greg Dyke for starting the debate. My strong view is that he has chosen the wrong answer, but I agree with Brendan Rodgers that he may have identified the right problem.
DEVELOPMENT: George Boyd celebrates after scoring for Hull City against Fulham. Left Stevenage’s Luke Freeman, centre, and Everton’s Gareth Barry